Hospital, Doctor Faulted; Boy Suffered Brain Damage During Birth
by Stephanie Reitz
The Hartford Courant
November 29, 2005
Atty. Chris Bernard
A jury has awarded $36.5 million to a Farmington Valley family, finding Hartford Hospital and an obstetrician liable for irreparable injuries their son suffered during his delivery by a surrogate mother.
The jury award may be the largest ever for medical malpractice in the state, surpassing a record-setting $27 million verdict in 1999 against Yale-New Haven Hospital and Yale University.
A six-member jury in Waterbury Superior Court reached the verdict last week, finding the hospital and Dr. Peter J. Doelger, a Hartford-area obstetrician and gynecologist, liable for the brain damage, blindness, cerebral palsy and other injuries that Nicholas Cowles, now 6, sustained at birth.
"If the evidence had shown that Hartford Hospital and Dr. Doelger were not at fault, we would have gone that way. We just didn't see anything that showed us remotely that they weren't liable," jury foreman Julie Torres said Monday.
The jury found the hospital to be 60 percent liable and Doelger, 40 percent liable.
Nicholas' parents, Thomas and Sheila Cowles, now divorced and living in Farmington and Avon respectively, brought the case on behalf of their son, who was delivered by a surrogate mother on Feb. 10, 1999.
Torres described the Cowleses as "very loving and caring," saying that although they have help from a visiting nurse for about 10 hours a day, they are the primary caretakers to their profoundly disabled son.
Nicholas, who uses a wheelchair and cannot hold up his head, also was present in the courtroom for part of the testimony, Torres said, adding, "we all wanted to reach out and hug him."
In reaching their verdict against Doelger and the hospital, jurors determined that Doelger failed to interpret strips from a monitoring device that would have indicated the fetus was in distress, court records show.
He also allowed the surrogate mother's difficult delivery to continue so long that the fetus suffered a dangerous increase in blood acidity, and should have delivered the child by Caesarean section long before he did, the jurors concluded.
The hospital was deemed liable, the jury said, because its nurses also failed to interpret the fetal-monitoring strips; did not properly monitor the mother's condition after administering Pitocin, a drug used to start and speed up contractions; and failed to notify doctors that the drug had over-stimulated her uterus, causing the difficult delivery to turn into an emergency.
Torres said the five weeks of testimony in the case left all six jurors with a firm belief that most, and perhaps all, of Nicholas Cowles' medical complications could have been averted if the hospital and Doelger had acted properly.
"Had the Caesarean been performed even 30 minutes earlier, Nicholas would be fine today," she said. "It was just tragic that it happened that way."
Attorneys for the parents, hospital and doctor declined Monday to comment on the verdict, citing an agreement between the parties not to discuss it.
Some malpractice attorneys not involved in the case suggested Monday that the agreement not to comment after the verdict indicates that settlement negotiations could be underway to avert an appeal.
People familiar with the case said Monday that Doelger, an obstetrician with offices in Hartford, Bloomfield and Avon, had never been sued before the Cowles case. He was previously named one of the state's top physicians in his specialty by Connecticut Magazine.